Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com
Posts tagged "Thomas Jefferson"
THOMAS JEFFERSON

3rd President of the United States (1801-1809)

Full Name: Thomas Jefferson
Born: April 13, 1743, Shadwell plantation, Goochland County (present-day Albemarle County), Virginia
Political Party: Democratic-Republican
State Represented: Virginia
Term: March 4, 1801-March 4, 1809
Age at Inauguration: 57 years, 325 days
Administrations: 4th and 5th
Congresses: 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th
Vice Presidents: Aaron Burr (1st term: 1801-1805) and George Clinton (2nd term: 1805-1809)
Died: July 4, 1826, Monticello estate, near Charlottesville, Virginia
Age at Death: 83 years, 82 days
Buried: Monticello estate, near Charlottesville, Virginia

2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 11 of 43 [↓3]

Another of the “Precedent Presidents”, the biggest achievements of Thomas Jefferson’s two terms in the White House were ambitious exhibitions of Executive power that seemed to go against the strictly republican, weak central power beliefs that Jefferson had lived his life on — the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the use of Executive Privilege, the abolition of the slave trade.  Surprising until you realize that Jefferson’s biography was a maze of contradictions.  While Jefferson will always be impossible to fully understand, it’s also impossible to overlook the fact that the 3rd President expanded the boundaries of the nation, expanded our understanding of the country we lived in, fought back against the Barbary pirates in a show of national strength, and even expanded the office of the President by his use of Executive Privilege in Aaron’s Burr’s treason trial.  The last two years of Jefferson’s term, with the Embargo Act and the Non-Intercourse Act left his successor, James Madison, with a wealth of inherited problems, but Jefferson’s achievements prior to that modernized the Presidency and American politics in a way that cannot be discounted.

PREVIOUS RANKINGS:
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine:  5 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine:  5 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine:  5 of 38
1990: Siena Institute:  3 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine:  4 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  7 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll:  5 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership:  4 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  7 of 42
2010: Siena Institute:  5 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre:  4 of 40

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Do you think Secretary of State would be a good stepping stone to the presidency today, or that the offices are too distinct now?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

At the beginning of the 19th Century, being Secretary of State was almost a guarantee that you’d be elected President.  Five of the first eight Presidents had served as Secretary of State, including three (James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams) who went directly to the White House from serving two terms as Secretary of State.  But it’s been nearly 160 years since the last Secretary of State — James Buchanan, who ran President Polk’s State Department from 1845 to 1849 — was elected President.  

I think it’s more difficult now for a couple of reasons.  First of all, Secretaries of State aren’t nearly as powerful now.  The Vice Presidency is a far more influential position today than it was in the 18th, 19th, and first half of the 20th Century, the White House Chief of Staff handles the Administration’s COO-type responsibilities that many Secretaries previously took on, and as other Cabinet posts have increased their profile within the Executive Department it has diminished the power of the Secretary of State, especially when there are turf wars like the feud between Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld.  The Secretary of State used to be a Foreign Minister-type position that was basically just short of being equivalent to a Prime Minister; in many ways, the Secretary of State used to be (unofficially) the first-among-equals within the Cabinet.  That changed a bit early in the 20th Century, but especially in the latter part of the last century.  Basically since Nixon’s Presidency, American foreign policy is almost fully run by the White House through the National Security Staff (formerly known as the National Security Council).  The Secretary of State is a member of the National Security Staff and has a role in formulating that policy, of course, but they are more like Super Ambassadors who go where the President sends them and relays messages.  They have always been the top American diplomat, but the job now is much more political, domestically and internationally, than administrative.

Another reason why you don’t see more Secretaries of State running for President directly from the State Department is purely political.  If a President serves a single term, a Secretary of State isn’t going to be an ideal candidate because they’d have to challenge their boss.  If a President serves two terms, there is usually voter fatigue when it comes to the President and his Cabinet.  After two terms, the opposition party will have been sharpening their knives and getting ready for the Presidential election.  A Secretary of State who has either served two terms in office or wants to run for President directly from the State Department after one term in the Cabinet is an easy target.  All Presidents eventually become lame ducks and if someone is serving in their Cabinet as the President’s popularity starts to take a dive, they’ll usually be painted with that same brush.  It’s easy to run against them — whether you’re from the other party or challenging them in the primary.

Hillary Clinton would have a more difficult race in front of her if she were serving as Secretary of State in Obama’s Cabinet right now.  It would be easier to connect her with an unpopular President who is rapidly heading towards lame duck status if she were currently in the Cabinet.  Since she left after the first term, on her own terms, after Obama had been re-elected, she basically left at the perfect time — it’s like when an athlete retires after winning a championship.  If you go out on top, you control your destiny and shore up your legacy.  So, that’s why no Secretaries of State have been elected President since Buchanan in 1856 and few have even won their party’s nomination.  But, if things play out the way I think they will, Hillary will end that drought in 2016.      

Asker kray814 Asks:
I was looking through your presidential rankings and I was pretty surprised that you had LBJ (who I think was a really good POTUS) ahead of Thomas Jefferson, definitely considering Vietnam. So why did you rank LBJ higher than Jefferson?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

This gives me a good chance to start promoting the fact that I will be updating my Presidential Rankings this year.  Those of my readers who have followed me for a while know that I have always been hesitant about ranking the Presidents because doing so invariably raises more questions and controversy than not ranking them.  Plus, I’ve always believed (and still do) that it’s impossible to accurately compare and contrast individuals of vastly different generations who likely wouldn’t be able to comprehend the issues faced by their predecessors or successors because there is such a distance between them  — not just in time, but in the complexity of the job and the national political climate.  The Presidency of James Madison was a completely different position from the Presidency of William McKinley, and those are just two Administrations that I chose at random.  We can’t really rank all of the Presidents in a scientifically meaningful way because they basically had totally different jobs that just happened to have the title of “President of the United States”.  And, in many cases, Presidents lived in an entirely different nation than other Presidents — the nation is always changing, so it would be downright unfamiliar to take a President from one era and place him in another.

BUT…I aim to please and that’s why I finally buckled to pressure and ranked the Presidents in 2012.  As I said then, I’ll be updating the rankings biennially since it’s so unlikely for there to be drastic changes in the list from one year to another.  I also doubt that there are any dramatic changes every two years, but I’m updating them anyway — the 2014 Presidential Rankings will be published on the Fourth of July weekend.

As for your question, I am cognizant of the dark cloud the shadows Lyndon Johnson’s legacy due to Vietnam and I factored that into my ranking of LBJ.  I also recognize that I’m probably one of LBJ’s biggest fans and rank him higher than many other historians do.  It’s not just a personal bias, though — if it weren’t for Vietnam, I’d probably have LBJ ranked #4 instead of #6 and the only reason he wouldn’t slip into the top three is because I can’t justify displacing Lincoln (#1), Washington (#2), or FDR (#3).  Like I wrote in my LBJ post for the rankings:

LBJ is a great President because of his domestic accomplishments and Civil Rights, even with the turmoil of the last few years of his Presidency and the drag that Vietnam places on his legacy.  I am adamant that the passage of true, effective Civil Rights legislation during LBJ’s Presidency — legislation that was shepherded and piloted through Congress by Lyndon Johnson — is one of the great accomplishments in all of American History.  I believe that LBJ did more for Civil Rights than anyone in American History — including Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.  His leadership when it came to getting legislation passed through Congress so that he could sign it never receives the full appreciation that I feel it deserves, so I’ll continue fighting my own battle for it.

When it comes to Thomas Jefferson, it’s important to remember that my rankings were of these leaders as President, not for anything else that they did in their life.  Jefferson’s ranking focuses only on his accomplishments from March 4, 1801 to March 4, 1809 and to put it simply, Thomas Jefferson is an overrated President.  I ranked Jefferson at #11, above James Madison and directly below Bill Clinton.  Looking at that list with fresh eyes, I actually think I ranked him higher than he deserves.  In my ranking of Jefferson, I wrote:

Another of the “Precedent Presidents”, the biggest achievements of Thomas Jefferson’s two terms in the White House were ambitious exhibitions of Executive power that seemed to go against the strictly republican, weak central power beliefs that Jefferson had lived his life on — the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the use of Executive Privilege, the abolition of the slave trade.  Surprising until you realize that Jefferson’s biography was a maze of contradictions.  While Jefferson will always be impossible to fully understand, it’s also impossible to overlook the fact that the 3rd President expanded the boundaries of the nation, expanded our understanding of the country we lived in, fought back against the Barbary pirates in a show of national strength, and even expanded the office of the President by his use of Executive Privilege in Aaron’s Burr’s treason trial.  The last two years of Jefferson’s term, with the Embargo Act and the Non-Intercourse Act left his successor, James Madison, with a wealth of inherited problems, but Jefferson’s achievements prior to that modernized the Presidency and American politics in a way that cannot be discounted.

I downplayed the mess that Jefferson left Madison when he turned the White House over to his fellow Virginian in 1809 and I shouldn’t have.  The Embargo Act crippled the American economy and devastated nearly every aspect of American industry and agriculture.  Instead of boldly declaring our neutrality and punishing the British and French for repeated violations of American sovereignty, the Embargo Act left American products rotting in warehouses throughout the country while the American ships normally used to export American-made goods fell apart in their docks from disuse.  While it was President Madison who led the nation into the War of 1812, Jefferson’s actions towards the end of his Presidency undoubtedly helped commit the nation on the path to another military conflict with the British Empire.

Also, as I wrote in my ranking of Jefferson, almost all of the major actions that he took as President were the result of the type of demonstrations of Executive power that he had been so concerned about and vehemently opposed to since the foundation of the republic.  Unsurprisingly, it turned out that we had no idea what Jefferson actually stood for — and he very well might not have know for sure, either.  When I rank the Presidents, nothing matters but their Presidency, and Jefferson’s performance in the job was definitely not better than Johnson’s. 

Jefferson probably realized his shortcomings as President, too.  When he died in 1826, a tombstone that he personally designed was placed on his grave at Monticello.  Jefferson himself wrote the epitaph on his tombstone which read, “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the Father of the University of Virginia”.  Jefferson neglected to list that he had once served as President of the United States.

Notwithstanding a thousands Faults and blunders, his Administration has acquired more glory, and established more Union, than all his three Predecessors — Washington, Adams, and Jefferson — put together.
John Adams, sharing his thoughts on James Madison’s Presidency near the end of his term, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, February 2, 1817
Mr. Madison was the intimate, confidential, and devoted friend of Mr. Jefferson, and the mutual influence of these two mighty minds upon each other, is a phenomenon, like the invisible and mysterious movements of the magnet in the physical world, and in which the sagacity of the future historian may discover the solution of much of our national history not otherwise easily accountable.
John Quincy Adams, on the friendship of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, April 30, 1839
Monroe showed his usual good sense in appointing [John Quincy] Adams [as his Secretary of State]. They were made for each other. Adams has a pointed pen; Monroe has sound judgment enough for both, and firmness enough to have his judgment control.
Thomas Jefferson, on James Monroe’s appointment of John Quincy Adams as his Secretary of State, 1817
The friendship which has subsisted between us, now half a century, and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have been sources of constant happiness to me through that long period. And if I remove beyond the reach of attention to the University [of Virginia], or beyond the bourne of life itself, as I soon must, it is a comfort to leave that institution under your care, and an assurance that they will neither be spared, nor ineffectual…To myself you have been a pillar of support through life. Take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections.
Thomas Jefferson, in his final letter to James Madison before he died, February 17, 1826
If [William Jennings] Bryan wins, we have before us some years of social misery, not markedly different from that of any South American republic…Bryan closely resembles Thomas Jefferson, whose ascension to the Presidency was a terrible blow to this nation.

Theodore Roosevelt, in a letter to Cecil Spring Rice, expressing his worries about a William Jennings Bryan victory in the 1896 Presidential election.

Roosevelt was obviously not a big fan of his Mount Rushmore colleague, Thomas Jefferson. On another occasion, TR said that Jefferson was “Perhaps the most incapable Executive that ever filled the Presidential chair…It would be difficult to imagine a man less fit to guide the state with honor and safety through the stormy times that marked the opening of the present century.”

Asker Anonymous Asks:
What did you think of James Thomas Flexner's four volumes on George Washington, same question about Dumas Malone's six volumes on Thomas Jefferson?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

I’ve only read the abridged, one-volume edition of James Thomas Flexner’s Washington: The Indispensable Man and thought it was a solid book, but wish I would have read all four volumes because it’s clearly more complete and probably reads better (I feel like the choppiness of abridged versions can sometimes be too obvious).

I’ve never read Dumas Malone’s collection about Jefferson and His Times and probably won’t, although I’m sure they are great.  Six volumes is quite an investment in time (and money if you have to buy the books), and I’ve already read enough about Jefferson in my life to not want to spend six volumes on him

I hope and confidently believe that you will be prepared to bear this event with calmness and composure, if not with indifference; that you will not suffer it to prey on your mind or affect your health. In your retirement you will have not only the consolation…that you have discharged all the duties of a virtuous citizen, but the genuine pleasure of reflecting that by the wisdom and firmness of your Administration you left…[the] country in safe and honorable peace…In resisting…the violence of France, you saved the honor of the American name from disgrace…By sending the late [diplomatic] mission, you restored an honorable peace to the nation, without tribute, without bribes, without violating any previous engagements…You have, therefore, given the most decisive proof that…you were the man not of any party but of the whole nation.

John Quincy Adams, consoling his father in a letter following John Adams’s loss to Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 Presidential election, November 25, 1800.

John Adams didn’t exactly bear his defeat “with calmness and composure”. Instead, he left town and headed home to Massachusetts before Jefferson’s inauguration.

Nearly 30 years later, the next President to lose his bid for reelection after serving just one term in office also decided to snub the man who had defeated him. Ignoring his own advice to his father three decades earlier urging “calmness and composure” in defeat, John Quincy Adams skipped town prior to the inauguration of Andrew Jackson.

There is no act, however virtuous, for which ingenuity may not find some bad motive.
Thomas Jefferson, personal letter to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803
No man will ever carry out of the Presidency the reputation which carried him into it.
Thomas Jefferson, letter to Edward Rutledge, December 27, 1796
Perhaps the most incapable Executive that ever filled the Presidential chair…It would be difficult to imagine a man less fit to guide the state with honor and safety through the stormy times that marked the opening of the present century.
Theodore Roosevelt, on Thomas Jefferson